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Voters apparently called for a change in the nation’s politics in Sunday’s elections for the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party of Japan consolidated its position as the No. 1 opposition party by winning an additional 35 seats, although it failed to win enough votes to allow it to establish a coalition government with other opposition parties.

At the same time, the voters dealt a heavy blow to the current coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the Conservative Party, which have jointly commanded about two-thirds of the Lower House seats. They suffered a combined loss of nearly 20 percent in strength.

In a special session of the Diet that will be convened July 4, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori will again be named premier and will launch a largely shuffled Cabinet, one that will be his own rather than that which he inherited from the late Keizo Obuchi. With a lot of problems to solve before an Upper House election scheduled for next summer, Mori will face difficult challenges managing the government and the coalition.

A key issue in the last general election was the form of government: continuation of the tripartite coalition by the LDP, New Komeito and the Conservative Party or the establishment of a new governing alliance by opposition parties.

On Monday, Mori said “the public will supports my continuing to take charge of national politics.” His remarks represent his perception that the voters expressed confidence in the current tripartite coalition.

Certainly, the coalition parties won a total of 271 seats. That exceeds by two seats the threshold that allows the coalition to command a stable majority on all standing committees, in addition to allowing it to claim the post of chairperson in those committees. At the same time, however, the coalition government had its pre-election strength of 336 seats reduced by 65.

In particular, the LDP lost 38 seats, securing only 233, less than a bare majority in the 480-seat chamber. This is the first time that the LDP has suffered such a big loss. Both New Komeito and the Conservative Party each suffered an 11-seat loss.

All the members of the coalition suffered a serious setback. How then can Mori claim that the coalition government won the voters’ confidence?

These results should be interpreted as an expression of the voters’ severe criticism of the alliance between the LDP, which is known for its pork-barrel politics, and New Komeito, which as an opposition party criticized the LDP.

In electoral cooperation between the two parties, New Komeito did not receive as much as it gave to the LDP, and this has provoked discontent among New Komeito members. In the Upper House, the LDP cannot command a majority without New Komeito. Now it appears most likely that New Komeito will be increasingly independent in the runup to the Upper House election next year.

There also is the possibility that a controversy within the LDP over the legitimacy of the government will resume between the mainstream factions and the nonmainstream groups that were reluctant to support the tripartite coalition. The mainstream factions are the powerful grouping once led by the late Prime Minister Obuchi, another led by Mori and yet another jointly led by Takami Eto and Shizuka Kamei; the nonmainstream groups are those led by Koichi Kato, the former LDP secretary general, and Taku Yamasaki, the former chairman of the party’s Policy Affairs Research Council. This could weaken the government.

Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the DPJ, confidently commented that the election results will serve as the first step toward a change of government. Indeed, his party’s increase of 32 seats represents a great stride forward. The 127 seats that the party garnered equals or nearly exceeds the votes won by the Japan Socialist Party, when it was the No. 1 opposition party during the “1955 political system” period.

Yet since even before the election, Hatoyama has not articulated a clear idea of a coalition government of opposition parties with the DPJ at its center. This raises doubts about the possibility of a change of government and raises questions about his ability to lead the largest opposition party.

Opposition parties seem ready to strengthen their joint struggles in the Diet and elsewhere. But there remain big gaps between their positions even on the most important problems, such as the Constitution, the consumption tax and security policy.

The DPJ will have to overcome daunting challenges if it is going to rally opposition parties behind it and counter the tripartite coalition government. Whether the DPJ has the leadership to play such a role is the basic question.

Key to the outcome of Sunday’s elections was the behavior of voters unaffiliated with any political group. One-third of the people who voted for LDP candidates in single-seat districts throughout the country did not vote for the LDP in the proportional representation ballot.

In that tally, the DPJ collected almost as many votes as did the LDP. Meanwhile, the Japan Communist Party, which suffered a total defeat in the single-seat districts, received a smaller number of votes in the proportional tallies than it did in the previous Lower House election. Obviously, unaffiliated voters opposed to the LDP cast their ballots for DPJ.

Voter turnout in the single-seat constituencies was 62.49, the second lowest after the record set in the previous election. This means that public distrust of politics persists.

The road ahead will be rough for the Mori government, which will host the G8 Kyushu-Okinawa summit in July. Mori, who promised during the campaign to make economic recovery a priority, will implement an early disbursement of reserve funds for public-works projects amounting to 500 billion yen.

There is also the possibility of a supplementary budget for the same purpose. Although there was real GDP growth in fiscal 1999 — the first time in three years — it remains uncertain whether the Japanese economy is on the path of sustained growth. The timing of such a fiscal measure will be difficult under the circumstances.

The problem is when the government will launch fiscal rehabilitation measures. So far, the LDP has said that steps to restore fiscal soundness will start after the nation’s GDP registers 2 percent growth in 2001.

It will be impossible to eliminate the huge sum of 645 trillion yen in public debts if the government continues to spend tax money in a lax manner just for the sake of economic recovery. Raising the consumption tax to secure more revenue seems likely to become inevitable in the near future. Apparently, there is no time to lose when it comes to reforming the social welfare system that is centered on medical care, pensions and home-nursing care.

Political parties must have the courage to call on the people to share the economic burden. Which party will exercise the political leadership needed to tackle, on the basis of a clear midterm and long-term vision, delayed reforms on these fronts? The voters’ next and crucial verdict will be handed down in the next Upper House election, which will be held not long after the doors to the 21st century are opened.

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